Friday, March 9, 2012

     Sitting in the chair next to the window, with the sunlight warming her wrinkled face, she looks like she might be sleeping.  But, the only thing sleeping is her mind.  She is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease.  Forgotten are all of life’s beautiful memories that should be comforting her in her declining years.  Gone are the visions of her children playing in the yard as they grew up.  Even her husband is a stranger now.  She looks at him with vacant eyes, a prisoner in her own mind.  She just sits alone in her room day after day, unable to care for her own needs, waiting for the inevitable---death.
    It’s a devastating picture to paint, but it is true all too often with Alzheimer’s patients.  This insidious disease tears your heart out, as you watch someone you love sink deeper and deeper into themselves, until there is nothing left of a once vibrant individual.
     Alzheimer’s disease does strange things to people.  In the early stages, it can be difficult to distinguish from ordinary forgetfulness.  But, eventually it will rob your loved one of all memory, even of the day-to-day routine of living.  They will forget how to dress, wash, pay bills, or even how to figure our what that bill is for.  They won’t remember how to write a check to pay the bill.  They will ask the same question over and over again, forgetting that they already asked it once.  They will forget how to tie their shoes, or they may even forget to wear their shoes.  They will misplace things, or hide them in strange places.
     These once dynamic people are shut down by the slow deterioration of their brains.  What is Alzheimer’s disease?  It is a progressive, degenerative disease that attacks the brain and results in impaired memory, thinking and behavior.  It affects an estimated four million adults in American.
     When the first case of Alzheimer’s was diagnosed in 1907 by a German physician named Alois Alzheimer, it was considered to be a rare disorder.  However, today it is recognized as the most common cause of dementia.
     According to Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, dementia is a condition of deteriorated mentality often coupled with emotional apathy.  My Home Medical dictionary calls it a deterioration of intelligence.  Dementia is not a disease in itself, but a group of symptoms that characterize diseases and condition.  There are other conditions that mimic dementia, such as alcoholism, drug reactions. Thyroid disease, nutritional deficiencies, brain tumors, head trauma, and infections.
     Alzheimer’s disease is most likely to occur in an older person.  Approximately 10 percent of people sixty-five years or older are affected by Alzheimer’s disease.  As a person reaches eighty-five or above, the percentage rises to 47.2 percent.
     The families of Alzheimer’s patients feel the effects of the disease too.  The emotional cost, not to mention the social and financial cost, of care for Alzheimer’s patients is very high.  Family members work hard to keep them at home, until they can no longer deal with the problems inherent to the disease.  They risk their own health just to keep them at home, instead of placing them in an Alzheimer’s unit where they are more comfortable and easier to manage.
     There is no single test for Alzheimer’s.  It takes a complete physical, psychiatric and neurological evaluation by a team of physicians to come to a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.  These tests should include a complete medical history, a test of mental status, a complete blood work-up, a urinalysis a chest X-ray, an electroencephalogram (EEG), a computerized tomography (CT scan), and an EKG (electrocardiogram).  This should tell the physicians if it is indeed Alzheimer’s or if the dementia is caused by some other, treatable condition.  They can make a diagnosis that is 90 percent accurate.
     Although there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease at this time, there are reasons to hope.  New research is ongoing and promising breakthroughs are expected.  With the pharmaceutical companies testing and working to develop new medicines to fight this debilitating disorder, there is hope that Alzheimer’s will be a more treatable disease soon.

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